On a cold Saturday in February, a black Chevy began hitting doughnuts on a busy intersection just south of the river near downtown Austin, at Barton Springs Road and South Lamar. Other cars joined in, and puffs of burnt rubber filled the intersection as if from a fog machine. A huge throng of onlookers gathered, and some of them threw fireworks right in the middle of the scrum. The crowd got rowdy when police tried to break it up: at first, some refused to disperse and threw fireworks and rocks at cop cars. At least two cruisers’ windows got broken, and Austin Police Department reported that one officer, hit by a thrown object, was hospitalized briefly before being released that same night.
By the end of that week, Governor Greg Abbott had taken emergency action, announcing a “task force” led by the state police to investigate the matter. “This statewide task force will work closely with local officials and law enforcement to investigate, prosecute, and prevent these dangerous street takeovers,” Abbott wrote in a press release. The Barton Springs event definitely got raucous, but the governor taking the time to react to it was still notable. In cities across the country, but especially Oakland and the East Bay in California, there’s another name for what the governor called “street takeovers”: sideshows. And there’s another way of describing them: a normal Saturday. In the words of Richie Rich on his 1990 Bay Area classic, “It’s a everyday thing / Every Saturday night, brothers be tearin’ up cars.”
Sideshows are a mix of car show and flash mob—they’re spontaneous street parties where drivers show off their cars, and crowds (often teenagers) dance in the intersections, sometimes right in the middle of vehicles doing doughnuts. Sideshows started in Oakland in the late eighties and went big in the nineties as a subspecies of East Bay hyphy culture. When I grew up in the Bay in the nineties and the aughts, plenty of intersections had the huge, telltale black O of screech marks from cars spinning doughnuts, and I grew up with songs celebrating the impromptu street gatherings, such as Mistah F.A.B.’s “Ghost Ride It.” (In high school, I even ghost rode my mom’s Honda Odyssey: in an empty parking garage, I stood on the open driver’s door as the minivan glided dorkily down a slight incline.) In the last two decades, as Oakland rap culture spread around the country—and Californians like me migrated to the Lone Star State—sideshows began popping up in cities including Austin and San Antonio.
Sideshows are a bad idea. They’re not in the slightest safe. Teenagers hitting doughnuts are often too high, too drunk, or just too stupid to drive well, and onlookers get hit regularly. But, at the end of the day, sideshows are best thought of as youthful nonsense, a way for reckless kids to do something that’s loud and burns huge amounts of oil—the kind of activity I assumed Texans would love.
At first, it was hard to understand why the governor of the entire state was responding to such a local incident. In California, police have long battled against sideshows, but it’s dealt with as a city issue, not a state issue. (For instance, last year, Oakland began installing “Botts’ Dots”—raised bumps that force cars to reduce speed—in intersections.) But Abbott’s full press release announcing his task force makes clear what his reaction is all about.
“Despite the foolish attempts by some local officials to defund and demoralize our brave law enforcement officers, Texas is and remains a law-and-order state,” Abbott wrote. “We must send a clear message that these reckless, coordinated criminal events will not be tolerated in Texas.” (Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick was more willing to name names in his own response. “This is the result of voters electing former leftist anti-police Mayor [Steve] Adler and the mostly anti-police city council that’s still there. Not long ago Austin was a safe city. No more,” he tweeted a couple days after the “street takeover.”)
In large part, Abbott’s statewide crackdown on local nonsense is just the latest way to use what he’s called “The People’s Republic of Austin” as a punching bag. While the Austin City Council cut the police budget in 2020—mostly by transferring police duties such as forensics and victim services to other city agencies—the 2021–22 budget raised funding back to a record-setting $443 million.
However, after finding success in the midterms by fanning fears of a “crime wave” in big cities, Republicans including Abbott have continued to portray Democrat-controlled cities such as Austin as lawless dystopian hellscapes. No matter that the city’s crime rate is below the national average (while homicide rates rose during the first two years of the pandemic, that was true for most major U.S. cities, including Republican-run metros such as Fort Worth and Jacksonville, Florida). Indeed, according to FBI data, Austin is one of the safest big cities in the country. But the videos from the February 18 sideshow are good anecdotal material to back up Abbott’s argument that it’s fallen to crime and anarchy: one video shows a group of onlookers charging a police car, which reverses and retreats speedily.
The day after the event, right-wingers in the Texas Legislature were already using the sideshow as fodder for the semi-sarcastic proposal that’s gained popularity in recent years: creating a “Capitol District,” similar to D.C., that would deprive Austinites of their local representation and put city control in the hands of the legislature. “Everyone say it with me now: District of Austin,” Representative Jared Patterson, a Republican from Frisco who filed a bill to that effect, tweeted gleefully the next morning.
It’s unclear what, exactly, Abbott’s new task force will look like. After Abbott’s announcement, the Department of Public Safety refused to answer reporters’ questions about what sort of funding or personnel the new unit would take up. If Abbott’s feeling passionate about vehicle safety at the moment, there’s a lot our state could do, however. Traffic deaths in Texas are ballooning—in 2021, they increased over 30 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels. In 2022, at least one person died on Texas roadways every single day, and the per-capita death rate has become one of the highest in the country. A 2023 study analyzing car insurance data—looking at incidents of “speeding, drunk driving, careless driving, and breaking traffic laws”—concluded that Texas had the worst drivers in the country, tied with New Mexico.
The majority of Texas traffic deaths occurred in rural areas. In 2021, 51 percent of Texas’s 4,489 traffic deaths happened in rural counties—a deeply upsetting figure, when you consider that only 10 percent of our state lives rurally. This is likely a symptom of how underserved these areas are by state resources, and building up more public infrastructure could help mitigate further deaths. Texas has more highway miles than any other state, but ranks fifteenth worst in road conditions; the I-45, from Galveston to Dallas, was ranked the deadliest highway in North America in 2021. To his credit, Abbott recently proposed a $100 billion plan to improve Texas roadways. Lamentably, the plan doesn’t address improving the state’s public transportation—one proven way to reduce traffic fatalities.
I’ve almost died at least twice in the Barton Springs–South Lamar intersection, but not because of any sideshows. Austin drivers seem to have a form of myopia that makes them blind to bike lanes, and motorists seem unable to grasp the concept that, if you’re turning left on a green light, pedestrians may well be in the intersection. If Abbott were to announce a task force to fight the profligate dangers of car-obsessed Texas culture—and sure, include sideshows as a target while he’s at it—I might actually feel safer.